US pushes ahead with military plans despite Blix report

At the United Nations yesterday, they applauded after France's Foreign Minister had made an eloquent case for more inspections, more time for dealing with Iraq. But in Washington, preparations continued for war – and war soon.

Even before the diplomat Hans Blix gave his report, President George Bush was closeted at the White House with men who will run the military campaign: Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, and General Tommy Franks, commander of US Central Command and the likely military governor of a conquered, post-Saddam Iraq.

It was General Franks' second visit in as many days, after one on Thursday with General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No word emerged on the content of the discussions. Almost certainly, however, they were putting the final touches to plans for a US-led invasion, overwhelmingly probable within the next three or four weeks.

General Franks is expected to leave soon for Qatar, where Central Command has set up its regional headquarters for a military campaign.

Nothing that happened at the UN yesterday, including the more nuanced language of Mr Blix, will have blunted the determination of the US to force this crisis to a head soon. On Thursday, addressing American troops in Florida, Mr Bush said that unless the UN enforced resolution 1441, it risked "fading into history as an ineffective, irrelevant, debating society". As the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made clear at the UN, Washington still feels that way.

Yesterday, the White House ridiculed Saddam's latest pronouncement, that he is banning the import and manufacture of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. "If one would want to make believe and pretend that Iraq is a democracy that could pass meaningful laws, it would be 12 years late and 26,000 litres of anthrax short," Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush's press spokesman said. "It would be 12 years late and 38,000 litres of botulism short. And it would be 12 years late and 30,000 unfilled chemical warheads short."

Repeating the Bush administration's line that the inspections are little more than a game of hide-and-seek and a charade, Mr Fleischer approvingly quoted the words of Mr Blix yesterday: It was not the task of the inspectors to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, "but the task of Iraq to provide them."

Mr Fleischer added: "Nowhere did the world receive any comfort today that Iraq had shown any willingness to disarm, quite the contrary." He described the report – which many observers felt had strengthened the hand of those urging delay – as "very diplomatic". But the bottom line was that the world had no confidence in the "mirage" that President Saddam might be disarming.

Nor does Washington consider it necessary to obtain a second UN resolution. The US and Britain are working on drafts which could be submitted next week. A resolution would be welcome, but the US would not let its hands be tied, Mr Fleischer indicated. He claimed that war, if it came, would secure disarmament far more quickly than the UN process, left to run its course.

The pointers to that war multiply by the day. US warplanes continued their softening-up campaign on ground-to-air defences, as they bombed a mobile missile system near Basra. It was the third such strike in six days.

The system posed a threat to American aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, the Pentagon said. In fact, military analysts say, the bombing is serving to weaken Iraq's defences before the air assault likely to accompany the start of the fighting.

The airlift of troops also continues. By this weekend, the US build-up will be close to the level of 150,000 generally accepted as the minimum to give General Franks a full range of options in launching his attack.

A fifth aircraft-carrier group is en route, while the Pentagon confirmed that US special operations forces are already on the ground in parts of Iraq, searching for weapons sites, and laying the skeleton of a communications network that would kick in with the ground phase of a war.

The signs are that the campaign may be different from the Gulf War, which began with a massive aerial bombardment in January 1991. Ground operations and air attacks may be simultaneous. Next week, Turkey is expected to give formal permission for US troops to be stationed in eastern Turkey, from where they can launch an assault on a second front.

These and other troops would move swiftly to try to prevent the Iraqis blowing up oilfields. Most US commanders and analysts do not expect the fighting to last long; a matter of "days or weeks, not months," Mr Rumsfeld said last week.

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